Homelessness crisis reaches boiling point as winter approaches

(L-R) Tina Mireille (Mimi) Monette, and Josée Rainville, No More Tears West Nipissing Chair, at the homeless encampment in Lang’s Park on Friday, November 3rd. Municipal CAO Jay Barbeau was accompanied by WN Fire Chief Frank Loeffen to come see the camp and get some insight on the homelessness situation in West Nipissing.

Town frustrated with sluggish response from DNSSAB

Christian Gammon-Roy


West Nipissing has been dealing with a homelessness issue for quite a while now, with tent encampments sprouting up in various places, not all of them visible. The issue came to a boiling point in recent weeks, when West Nipissing CAO Jay Barbeau started to get involved out of a frustration from receiving complaints, but not seeing a coordinated effort to address the matter. In a council meeting on Tuesday, November 7th, Barbeau gave his account of many talks he’s had on the subject, and in particular about the newest encampment in Lang’s Park along Coursol Street. Barbeau said he had never had to deal with this issue in his 23 years as CAO, but he was compelled to send a strongly worded email to the Nipissing District Social Services Administration Board (NDSSAB) to deal with the problem the town is paying them to manage.

Barbeau said the town had been receiving complaints from residents about people living in tents, a situation that is untenable as the weather gets colder. Complicating matter further is that the site at Lang’s Park is where the town dumps its snow from winter snow removal.

Barbeau was looking for a solution to move the tent dwellers to safety, and convened local agencies to a meeting to discuss the matter. He noted that serving evictions only to have people packing up and moving elsewhere is not a real solution, likening this to “just kind of moving pieces on a game board.” He hoped the meeting, held about two weeks ago, would produce a more humane solution.

Assembled were “a multidisciplinary group of people” from DNSSAB, the Alliance Centre, West Nipissing Non-profit Housing, the West Nipissing Community Health Centre, OPP and bylaw enforcement. The meeting helped shine a light on the fact that while the agencies exist, none of them are tackling the homelessness problem in a coordinated manner.

“I was surprised that the agency dealing with social services were not overly aware of the actual numbers that we knew with respect to our bylaw enforcement officer and his knowledge. I was also surprised we did have information from one person who is an outreach worker who attends on Wednesdays and that was known by a few, but not by all. So, what struck me was a lack of coordination and real systematic attention to the problem,” Barbeau said about the meeting. “There’s certain agencies that may be dealing with a small part of it, and nobody knows that info,” he deplored.

Barbeau was particularly irked by the DNSSAB, which seems to be “sweeping West Nipissing as an aside,” while concentrating services in North Bay, despite a $3,467,086.65 levy from West Nipissing paid to DNSSAB as per a February 2023 invoice. Comparatively, North Bay pays $13,713,388.66 and all the other 9 municipalities who get their social services from DNSSAB combined pay $4,715,753.05.

WN Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon explained that the roughly $3.4 million is paid to DNSSAB to handle social services, and this is imposed by the province on smaller municipalities. She also felt West Nipissing was underrepresented on the DNSSAB board based on the town’s size and contribution, something she suggested bringing up with the Ontario Ministry of Social Services. West Nipissing has only one member on the board, currently councillor Jamie Restoule, while North Bay has six and the other municipalities have a combined five.

Barbeau admitted that he “stirred it up a little, because I wasn’t really impressed with the responses that I was receiving”, but added that he did not regret it as it led to more meetings. Councillor Restoule agreed, thanking Barbeau for his intervention and acknowledging that it had prompted reaction – and action – on the part of DNSSAB.

DNSSAB trying to stay on top of developing situation, says chair

Mark King, DNSSAB Board Chair, was asked to address some of these concerns and why work is only now being done when the problem is potentially turning into a crisis this winter. DNSSAB launched a housing affordability survey and announced the opening of a warming centre in North Bay in late October. No warming space was announced for West Nipissing.

 “West Nipissing didn’t have encampments in the last year, and I’ve become quite aware of it over the last two weeks,” explained King. He said the issue has ballooned much faster than DNSSAB could anticipate, apparently unaware that visible homelessness has been a growing concern in West Nipissing for the past couple of years.

King noted that DNSSAB is currently working on studies to help them gather data on the issues of homelessness and housing affordability and availability. “The fact that we’re just doing it now, I guess we could have gone at it earlier on, but I can tell you from my viewpoint, this is a 24/7 situation. It is extremely demanding trying to keep up with what is transpiring in the economy,” he responded when asked why the studies are only now happening when the issue, particularly with housing, has been evident for quite some time. King also explained the value of having this data to lobby the provincial and federal governments to move things along with regards to funding social services and supports.

Finally, King said he does want to get some work done in West Nipissing, mentioning an impending meeting with the mayor, CAO, and Councillor Jamie Restoule. He noted that opening a warming centre in West Nipissing is not as simple as just finding a space, as it also needs to be staffed. In North Bay, the DNSSAB partners with other organizations and this would have to be explored in West Nipissing. “We’re going to meet with the mayor and CAO and see, first of all, whether they’ve got any ideas about how we can solve this problem, and there’ll be some short fixes, but long-term fixes take time to work through the system,” he concluded.

King also mentioned that he’s contacted federal representatives to mobilize on this local issue, stating that he spoke to Anthony Rota in North Bay, and asked the MP to relay a message to Nickel Belt MP Marc Serré to look into West Nipissing’s woes.

Lang’s Park encampment

The current problem encampment is the newest one located in Lang’s Park, along Coursol street in Sturgeon Falls. Local volunteers who formed a group called No More Tears to help the homeless became concerned early this month when they thought the town was going to expel the tent dwellers. According to No More Tears Chair Josée Rainville, the camp has been there roughly since the summer, though not at this scale. Only a single tent was at the site until around October 16th, when police had to evict a camp on the railroad tracks near the Sturgeon Falls Information Centre, at the request of CN Rail. Some of that camp’s residents made their way to Lang’s Park.

On Friday, November 3rd, Barbeau did attend the camp at Lang’s Park, where he talked with Rainville, who was also on site that morning, as well as Elaine Ducharme who works with True Self as an Outreach Peer Worker who has been working with the homeless of West Nipissing for over a year. Barbeau took the time to explain the municipality’s position on the site being a danger in the winter, saying that work was underway to find some solutions to accommodate the needs of the homeless people there and across West Nipissing. He also took the time to listen to the members of No More Tears and lauded their sincere desire to help, with a caveat.

“I obviously respect their intentions, what I still don’t see though, is that coordination… what I indicated to them is one person living on the street is not acceptable to me. I don’t think anybody signed their yearbook saying ‘I wish to be living in a tent off of Coursol street’. So I don’t think it’s something that, you know, is their fault. (…) I believe it’s incumbent on all of us to work together and to basically provide the individuals the assistance that they need. And though I respect the fact that they [No More Tears] are providing comfort here locally, I don’t think that in and of itself is sufficient. I believe that just basically provides some comfort, but it isn’t sustainable. What’s sustainable is to have them get into whatever system is offered to them to get them the help and the care that they need and deserve as humans,” Barbeau concluded.

Barbeau specified that he was not at the park to evict people with no place to go, but to find a longer term solution. “So the intent was to have (…) all of the parties and the social service agencies reach out and go and attend and offer alternatives to these, I think they’re 5 tents,” he explained. He also said that people were offered transportation to a shelter in North Bay, but refused. 

Rainville also took the time to answer questions and dispel some myths about their organisation. As she explained, the main goal of the group is to help the homeless to get off the streets and become self-sufficient, while providing supports in the meantime. Rainville has heard the complaints and rumours that their group is making the problem worse by enabling homelessness and helping them set up encampments. However, she insisted that’s simply not the case. According to Rainville, much of their outreach comes in the form of helping to navigate the bureaucracy these people must get through to access the services they need to get off the street. In many cases, the first step is to simply get them a piece of government ID. The other part of their outreach is helping them stay alive while they navigate this system. “In the meantime, there’s a big gap between them living in a tent, and them finding a place. We’re trying to fill that gap, trying to bring them the warm blankets, the food, the stuff that they need so that they can survive until they get housed,” explained Rainville.

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